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Beloved humor writer Patrick McManus dies at age 84

Author Patrick McManus poses for a portrait in 1992. (SR)
Author Patrick McManus poses for a portrait in 1992. (SR)

Patrick F. McManus, the New York Times best-selling author of books such as “Real Ponies Don’t Go Oink!” and “The Night the Bear Ate Goombaw,” died on Wednesday in Spokane. He was 84.

Patrick Francis McManus was born on Aug. 25, 1933, and grew up along the banks of Sand Creek outside Sandpoint. His father died when he was 6, leaving his mother, a school teacher, to raise him and his older sister. In interviews over the years, he spoke glowingly of his childhood as one where he would spend hours outdoors. His family may not have had a lot of money, but there was time and freedom to explore the world.

“I had a wonderful time as a child growing up,” he told Sandpoint Magazine in 1995. “I was down by the creek all the time and had all this freedom, running around all these mountains. (His friend) Vern and I took off one time and wandered around those mountains for a week. That’s not a bad way to grow up.”

As a humor columnist, he mined his own life for his stories, creating a beloved cast of characters based on people he knew from his childhood, guys like Rancid Crabtree and Crazy Eddie Muldoon, a dog named Strange, and even his sister, Patricia the Troll.

McManus published two dozen books, and sold roughly 6 million copies, in his lengthy career. Several of those books were collections of his magazine humor columns, but he also wrote novels.

After graduating from Sandpoint High School in 1952, McManus headed to Pullman, intending to be an artist. Instead, he ended up earning a journalism degree from Washington State College in 1956. He worked briefly as a police reporter before returning to Pullman to work toward a master’s degree, which he earned in 1959. Soon, he landed a job teaching at Eastern Washington State College, where he taught English, creative writing and journalism from 1960 until he retired in 1983.

He also established himself as one of the country’s most popular magazine writers. He wrote a monthly humor column called the Last Laugh from 1982 to 2009 for Outdoor Life magazine, and served as the publication’s editor-at-large. He was a columnist and associate editor for Field and Stream from 1977-82, and also had articles published in Reader’s Digest, Sports Illustrated, and the New York Times.

He published 14 collections of his columns, beginning in 1978 with “A Fine and Pleasant Misery,” through 2012’s “The Horse in My Garage and Other Stories.” He also wrote a series of mystery novels set in Blight, Idaho (a thinly veiled Sandpoint), featuring Sheriff Bo Tully; the most recent was “Circles in the Snow,” released in 2014. His book on writing, “The Deer on a Bicycle: Excursions into the Writing of Humor,” was published in 2000, and he and his sister, Patricia McManus Gass, collaborated on the cookbook “Whatchagot Stew,” published in 1989.

His stories took on a life of their own, literally, on the stage, thanks to a long-running relationship Tim Behrens, who for more than two decades has toured the country in one-man shows as McManus’ “indentured actor.” Behrens would bring McManus’ colorful characters to life in plays such as “McManus in Love,” “Poor Again … Dagnabbit!” and “A Fine and Pleasant Misery.”

“It was a pleasure to work with him,” Behrens said on Friday morning. “I loved him. It was a very close relationship. He was a gentleman and a scholar and a wordsmith.”

While their professional partnership began in 1992, their relationship began a decade earlier, when Behrens was McManus’ student at Eastern. Behrens was working on a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing, and McManus was his adviser. In fact, Behrens said, it was McManus who advised his student that after reading Behrens’ work for several years, it might be best for him to stick with acting.

“I said to him, ‘Well, you’ll have to write a play for me,’ ” Behrens said. “Seven years later, he presented me with a script.”

As news of his death circulated on Friday, friends and former colleagues and students remembered McManus for his humanity, his kindness, his intelligence and his wit.

Spokane journalist Kevin Taylor remembers taking a class from McManus in the late 1970s. In a Facebook post on Friday, Taylor wrote a recollection that captures McManus’ whimsical side: “I remember McManus, with bed-head and mis-matched socks, walking to his desk and saying, ‘This is Det. Sgt. Patrick McManus and I’m here to answer your questions about the murder last night,’ catching a class of sleepy journalism students completely off guard.”

Bill Stimson first met McManus as a student at Eastern five decades ago and they became friends. Stimson, a former newspaper reporter, followed McManus’ footsteps as an EWU journalism professor. He noted that McManus in person was much like McManus on the page, with a notable exception.

“The only difference I can see between his writing and his personality, which were pretty darn close … in his writing he’s somewhat clownish and he’s always getting in trouble because he doesn’t really know how to navigate life,” Stimson said. “But in real life, Pat McManus was extremely intelligent. … He was very well read.”

As one would expect from a humor columnist, McManus sprinkled his life with bits of humor and an appreciation of irony.

“No matter what you’re talking about, he finds some funny reflection on it,” Stimson said. He mentioned a time McManus invited him to his cabin overlooking Lake Pend Oreille. “He said, ‘I escape up here. I can feel my blood pressure go down. This is where I keep all the books I need when I’m in Spokane.’ ”

He also never let his success go to his head. His austere childhood never really left him, and he told Stimson he simply couldn’t get used to spending money.

“His books were on New York Times best-seller lists, but he was never impressed with success. He never put on airs whatsoever,” Stimson said. “It just didn’t change his life.”

Behrens said his friend’s childhood left a deep impression on the man and his work.

“He once said to me, ‘Stories became my passion because we couldn’t afford anything else.’ ”

EWU English professor Chris Howell said McManus’ writing has a “common touch” that made it accessible to readers of all varieties and in all parts of the country, despite the stories’ Idaho roots.

“He is one of the few writers I know who had fans across the literary spectrum,” Howell said. “My father, who was a dyed-in-the-wool, old-time Republican who never read anything, he read all of Pat’s books, and would read passages to me before I met Pat.

“I think he was very unusual in his capacity to strike some kind of tonal balance that would appeal to almost anyone.”

As a professor emeritus, he was awarded Eastern’s 2013 Distinguished Faculty Award. As the EWU Alumni Association wrote in announcing the award, “As a teacher, Pat was inspirational, demanding, and fun. He challenged all students to reach beyond what they imagined they could do and always strive for more.” WSU similarly recognized McManus, awarding him in 1988 an Alumni Achievement Award, for “outstanding achievement as an author and humorist, bringing the Pacific Northwest to national attention with his best-selling books.”

In a statement on Friday, EWU President Mary Cullinan remembered McManus for his generosity, both as as teacher and as a supporter of the school’s mission.

“During his time at Eastern, he touched the lives of many students with passionate and engaging journalism classes. Many alumni fondly recall him as their greatest teacher and mentor, with teaching skills and a sense of humor they have never forgotten.

“Even in retirement, Pat continued to demonstrate his devotion to EWU by generously contributing to the McManus Scholarship in Creative Writing and Journalism. He also donated signed books for EWU fundraisers and came to events at our JFK Library to speak with his fans.”

Howell got to know McManus well when he published McManus’ “The Deer on a Bicycle” through the EWU Press. McManus arranged for the proceeds of the book to go toward student scholarships and to support the EWU Press. They sold “thousands and thousands” of copies, Howell said. “It meant a lot to the creative writing program and the press, and ultimately the university and to the students.

“I found him to be a kind and generous, intelligent, cheerful person, almost always.”

McManus is survived by his wife, Darlene, their four daughters, nine grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. A private service is tentatively planned for next week at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Sandpoint.